St. Paul’s only Friends in Athens: St. Dionysius the Areopagus and Damaris

Today the Church celebrates the memory of St.
Dionysios the Areopagite
, one of the few Athenians who
responded to the apostle Paul’s speech on the
Areopagus, and became a Christian.

A remarkable pilgrimage book by H. V. Morton, In
the Steps of St. Paul (New York: Dodd, Mead
Company, 1936) takes us to the Areopagus in Athens in the
early twentieth century, with notes on this place so
famous to Christian history (pp 312-322).

* * *

The Acropolis. Photo: Wikipedia.
The Acropolis. Photo: Wikipedia.

Descending from the Acropolis,
I saw on the right a high outcrop of rock. It is separated
from the Acropolis by a narrow path, and an ancient
staircase of about fifteen or sixteen steps leads to the
top, where the rock bears trace of having been
artificially levelled. This is the Areopagus, the ancient
meeting-place of the famous assembly before whom St. Paul
delivered his speech to the Athenians.

Some people believe that the rock of the Areopagus is the
spot from which the Apostle spoke, while others consider
it more probable that he addressed the assembly from some
other place, possibly the agora or the King’s Stoa.
If the first are correct, St. Paul must have ascended
these rock-cut steps, he must have stood on this
commanding crag, and, as he told his listeners that God
“dwelleth not in temples made with hands,” he
must have pointed towards the Acropolis, rising a few
paces from him, crowded with marble temples and dominated
by the colossal Athena whose gold spear-tip was visible to
mariners at Sunium.

During the summer the Areopagus is one of the loneliest
places in Athens. Few people care to visit that unshaded
rock. It is haunted only by a melancholy man in a black
hat, who sidles up to the visitor and says: “Mister,
I will show you where St. Paul made his speech.”
Finding it less irritating in the long run to indulge
guides who, having good memories, ever after leave one in
peace, I allowed him to lead me to a certain portion of
the flat rock, where he delivered his stilted little
speech in a pathetic atmosphere of anti-climax. From that
time onwards, when I went there early in the morning or in
the cool of the evening, he would rise and touch his black
hat to me; and we became quite friendly. On one occasion
he introduced his little boy to me, a lad who, from the
look of him now, will grow up to be a terror to tourists
in twenty years time. So in this easy way I purchased the
freedom of the Areopagus. I rarely met a soul when I went
there to sit and watch the Propylaea change colour in the
setting sun. When St. Paul came to Athens, the city had
fallen from its ancient splendour. The great days of
Hellas were as distant from the Apostle as the Tudor Age
is from ourselves. Marathon and Thermopylae were as remote
to him as Bosworth Field is to a modern Englishman. I have
no idea whether St. Paul had ever read Homer, Thucydides
or Herodotus, or whether he took any interest in the
history of the race whose language he spoke; but surely,
as a liberal-minded Hellenist and the child of a great
Hellenistic university town, he must have felt his pulse
quicken when he approached Athens.

The Acropolis, Athens.
The Acropolis, Athens.

As he walked beside the Long Walls and saw the Acropolis
rising from the plain, the Voice of Jesus may have sounded
in his ears, in words like those recorded by St. John:
“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and
there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

In preaching the Gospel in Athens, for the first time in
his life, the Apostle stood alone in a world-renowned city
of the West. It is true that he had turned to the Gentiles
at Pisidian Antioch, but he had approached them through
the synagogue. He had journeyed among the Jews of the
Dispersion through Asia Minor and Macedonia; but in Athens
that world was behind him and he stood alone, the first
Christian missionary in the intellectual stronghold of the
Roman world. I think there are few moments in the history
of early Christianity more dramatic, or in their sequel
more notable, than the moment when the eyes of St. Paul
first saw the Acropolis.

Athens at that time was not even the capital of the Roman
senatorial province of Achaia. The Pineus had silted up,
and the commercial life of Greece had moved to the new
Roman colonies of Patras, Nicopolis, and, above all, to
the capital of the province, Corinth, a city almost as
rich and dissolute as Syrian Antioch. But Athens, although
no longer powerful commercially or politically, was still
the most famous city in Greece. She survived by virtue of
her past glory. The Romans were the first Philhellenes,
and in their sometimes contemptuous affection they
pardoned Athens deeds that would have brought destruction
on any other city in the Empire. In the afterglow of
creation, the once-splendid city of Pericles and Plato was
content to be the university of the Roman world. She gave
herself all the airs of greatness, but she no longer
created anything: she merely criticized. She no longer did
anything: she read history instead. Her academies and her
streets were filled with the arguments of Platonists,
Peripatetics, Stoics and Epicureans.

At this period the moral and intellectual decline of
Athens appeared complete. From Theomnestus, Curator of the
Academy in 44 B.C., to the time of Plutarch’s
teacher, Ammonius Alexandreus, who taught in the last
decade of the first century, no man of first-rate
importance was produced by Athens. It is only fair to
remember, of course, that intellectual Centres had
developed at Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Tarsus, and
perhaps a share of the intellect, that would in ancient
times have blossomed in the shadow of the Acropolis, was
at this period spread about the world.

Outwardly Athens was, perhaps, more brilliant than ever.
Her streets were thronged with the rich youth of the
world. Philosophers and teachers were never more numerous.
Distinguished men banished from other lands could always
find a happy retreat in a city that, in spite of its
mental and moral decline, was still a great intellectual
force. Tourists on their way to visit the ruined temples
of Egypt, and to write their names on the base of the
Colossi at Thebes, would break their voyage at Athens.
These first Hellenic travellers, led by their voluble
guides, would visit the famous relics of the past,
inspecting the statues and the works of art, standing in
awe on the Acropolis, where the temples, blazing with gold
and colour, stood among their crowded votive-offerings
much as they did in the time of Pericles. Athena Promachos
rose above them, grasping her golden spear.

Although Athens had begun to decline, she preserved her
antiquities and monuments, for on them her existence
depended. She multiplied the number of her festivals. The
sacrifices offered at her temples, and the succession of
great occasions which attracted pilgrims from every part
of the world, never failed to astonish those who visited
the city. In addition to the Dionysia, the Panathenia, and
the annual mysteries at Eleusis, historical events, such
as the Battle of Marathon and the birthdays of men like
Plato and
Socrates,
were religiously commemorated, giving to the present a
vivid beauty and excitement. At the time of St.
Paul’s visit to Athens, another wayfarer, in whom
many a modern reader must have detected a first century
Bernard Shaw, was making the same journey. This was
Apollonius of Tyana, whose encounter with the customs
official I have already quoted. Like St. Paul, Apollonius
noted the fact that at Athens “altars are set up in
honour even of unknown gods,” and the sights that
met this philosopher, as he walked to Athens from the
Piraeus, were the same as those which must have met the
eyes of the Apostle. Philostratus, who wrote the life of
the sage of Tyana, gives us an intimate glimpse of his
journey to Athens.

“Having sailed into the Piraeus at the season of the
mysteries, when the Athenians keep the most crowded of
Hellenic festivals,” writes Philostratus, “he
went post-haste up from the ship into the city; but as he
went forward, he fell in with quite a number of students
of philosophy on their way down to Phaleron. Some of them
were stripped and underwent the heat, for in autumn the
sun is hot upon the Athenians; and others were studying
books, and some were rehearsing their speeches, and others
were disputing. But no one passed him by, for they all
guessed that it was Apollonius, and they turned and
thronged around him and welcomed him warmly; and ten
youths in a body met him and holding up their hands
towards the Acropolis they cried: By Athena yonder, we
were on the point of going down to the Piraeus there to
take ship to Ionia in order to visit you! And he welcomed
them and said how much he congratulated them on their
study of philosophy. “The experiences of Apollonius
in Athens are interesting to the student of Paul’s
time because they reflect the scenes in which the Apostle
moved. When he reached Athens, one of the first actions of
the philosopher was to present himself for initiation into
the Eleusinian Mysteries; but he was refused, because,
said the hierophant, he had dabbled in magic. Whereupon
Apollonius remarked in a blunt and Shauvian manner:
“You have not yet mentioned the chief of my offence,
which is that, knowing, as I do, more about the initiatory
rite than you do yourself, I have nevertheless come for
initiation to you, as if you were wiser than I am.”

The degeneracy of the Athens of St. Paul’s time is
mirrored in the magnificent denunciation which Apollonius
flung at certain dancers at the festival of Dionysius:

“Stop dancing away the reputation of the victors of
Salamis, as well as of many other good men departed this
life,” was his splendid opening. “For if
indeed this were a Lacedaemonian form of dance, I would
say ‘Bravo, soldiers; for you are training
yourselves for war, and I would join in your dance’;
but as it is a soft dance and one of effeminate tendency,
what am I to say of your national trophies? . . . You are
softer than the women of Xerxes’ day, and you are
dressing yourselves up to your own despite, old and young
and tender youth alike, you who of old flocked to the
temple of Agraulus in order to swear to die in battle on
behalf of the fatherland. And now it seems the same people
are ready to swear to be come bacchants and don the
thyrsus in behalf of their country; and no one bears a
helmet, but disguised as female harlequins, to use the
phrase of Euripides, they shine in shame alone. Nay more,
I hear that you turn yourselves into winds, and wave your
skirts and pretend that you are ships bellying their sails
aloft. But surely you might have at least some respect for
the winds that were your allies and once blew mightily to
protect you, instead of turning Boreas who was your
patron, and who of all the winds is the most masculine,
into a woman; for Boreas would never have become the lover
of Oreithya if he had seen her executing, like you, a
skirt dance.” While one cannot help feeling that the
sage was rubbing it in rather hard, for Athens at this
period made no pretense at heroism, one is grateful for
this glimpse of the frivolity of a city and the effect it
had on an ascetic of the old school. What effect it had on
the mind of St. Paul can easily be conjectured. Some
writers have imagined the Apostle walking in amazed horror
between lines of Athenian statues. I do not believe this.
Neither the life nor the religion of Athens could amaze
St. Paul. Had he not lived in Syrian Antioch? Graven
images were to him an abomination, but he had seen them
every day of his life.

I believe that St. Paul joined the crowds of tourists in
Athens and visited all the show places with them. He would
have entered the Parthenon and looked on the famous Athena
of ivory and gold, gleaming in the shaded light, her
sandals on the level with a man’s eyes and her
helmet-plumes almost touching the roof. He would have seen
the Temple of Nike Apteros, the Erechtheum, and the Cave
of Pan. I believe that he must have studied, with no
pleasure it is true, the great host of statues, Greek and
foreign, which stood on pedestals in street and temple.

Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit
was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to
idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the
Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily
with them met with him. Then certain philosophers of the
Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some
said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth
to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached
unto them Jesus and the resurrection.

And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus,
saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou
speakest is? For thou bringest certain strange things to
our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
(For althea Athenians and strangers which were there spent
their time in nothing else, but to tell, or hear some new
tiling.)

How true is this description in Acts of the curiosity and
mental restlessness of the Athenians. It is mentioned by
Plato, Euthyphron, Phaedo, Protagoras, Demosthenes, and by
Plutarch, who commented on the Athenian restlessness,
subtlety, love of noise, and novelty. Curiosity mingled
with mental arrogance describes the Athenian attitude to
St. Paul. The word translated as “babbler” in
Acts is spermologos—an Athenian slang term,
which means “seed-picker,” and was applied to
people who loafed about the agora and the quay-sides,
picking up odds and ends. In modern life a spermologos
would be a tramp, or one of those who contrive to make a
poor living by picking up cigarette-ends and by exploring
dust-bins in the morning. As the Athenians applied it to
St. Paul, it conveyed contempt. The philosophers believed
the Apostle to be a snapper-up of unconsidered theological
and philosophical trifles.

Conscious of the contempt with which these arrogant
philosophers regarded him, St. Paul nevertheless eagerly
agreed to address them. And his address, couched in terms
of polite irony, proves that although he may have explored
Athens as earnestly as any tourist from Rome or
Alexandria, he was unmoved by the sights that impressed
other visitors because his mind was wholly occupied with
the salvation of Mankind through Jesus Christ. The only
things that impressed him in Athens were connected with
this mission. Everything else was purely trivial and
secondary. So, scorning to flatter the Athenians, as many
a philosopher making his first speech must have done, by
some graceful reference to the beauty of the city or its
ancient fame, St. Paul springs at once to the only thing
that impressed him as he wandered the streets of Athens:
the multiplicity of altars.

Standing either on the rock of the Areopagus, or among the
members of the Court of the Areopagus, he began: Ye
men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are
somewhat superstitious
, or as Dr. Moffatt has
translated the speech: “Men of Athens, I observe at
every turn that you area most religious people. Why, as I
passed along, and scanned your objects of worship, I
actually came upon an altar with an inscription TO AN
UNKNOWN GOD.” It was an excellent beginning. It had
the local touch, the right note of something surprising to
follow. To everyone who listened to St. Paul, the altars
inscribed TO AN UNKNOWNGOD were, of course, a commonplace.
Everyone knew the story of the plague that visited Athens
in the sixth century before Christ; and how, after
sacrifices had been made to every known god and the plague
continued, the services of the Cretan prophet, Epimenides,
were requested. He drove a flock of black and white sheep
to the Areopagus and allowed them to stray from there as
they liked, waiting until they rested of their own free
will: and on those spots were the sheep sacrificed
“to the fitting god.” The plague ceased, and
it became the custom, not in Athens alone, to erect altars
to unknown deities. St. Paul, having arrested the
attention of his audience, then built up his argument:

St. Dionyisios the Areopagite. (Pemptuousia).
St. Dionyisios the Areopagite. (Pemptuousia).

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing
that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in
temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with
men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he
giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath
made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all
the face of the earth. . . .
St. Paul developed his
message with masterly skill and tact. Clever, as always,
to suit his words to his audience, he made no mention of
the Hebrew scriptures, which would have conveyed nothing
to the Greeks, but dealt briefly with fundamental facts of
religion.

The Greeks listened carefully to the sermon until the
speaker proclaimed the coming Judgment of the World and
the Resurrection of Jesus, when they cut him short with
the words: “We will hear thee concerning this yet
again,” sounded in an atmosphere of contemptuous
mockery St. Paul’s address to the Athenians. The
apparent failure of his speech, the lofty scorn, the
haughty air of amused tolerance with which the Greeks had
listened, weighed on the sensitive nature of the Apostle.
He was companionless in this strange, vainglorious city;
like his Master, he was despised and rejected of men. And
into Acts creeps something of Paul’s sadness as he
paced the streets of Athens.

St. Damaris. (Mystagogy).
St. Damaris. (Mystagogy).
Yet
history has shown that Christianity has never been
more triumphant than in apparent failure. The seeds
had been sown. Paul could not know, as he gazed up at
the temples on the Acropolis, that the day would come
when the mighty Parthenon would be consecrated as a
Christian Church dedicated to the Mother of God.

All he saw was that, despite the scorn that had been
thrown on him, two human beings had come to him with open
hearts, only two from all the thousands in Athens. They
were Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and a woman
named Damaris. Nothing further is known of Damaris, but
legend has been busy with the name of Dionysius. According
to Eusebius, he became the first Bishop of Athens; but
another account says that he went with St. Paul to Rome,
stayed with the Apostle until his martyrdom, and then was
sent by St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, to preach the Gospel
in France. Settling one little island in the Seine, he
made many converts and became Bishop of Paris. He suffered
martyrdom under Domitian on the Hill of Martyrs
(Montmartre), and so became St. Dionysius, or St. Denys,
patron saint of France. As I sat one evening on the
Areopagus, watching the sunlight fade from the brown
slopes of the Acropolis, I thought that Athens contains
more buildings that Paul must have seen than any site I
had visited in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, or Macedonia.

He saw the Acropolis and the buildings whose ruins crown
it still: the Propylaea, the Parthenon, the Erechtheum,
and the Temple of the Wingless Victory. He saw the
Asklepieion, whose ruins are still cut in the side of the
Acropolis, and he saw the lovely theatre of Dionysus at
the foot of the hill. He saw the Theseum, which today is
the most perfectly preserved Greek temple in the world,
and he must have seen the Tower of the Winds and the
circular Monument of Lysikrates. All these monuments of
Paul’s day have defied the chilling touch of time.

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